SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first four episodes of “The Third Day.”
If all had gone according to plan, audiences would have seen Naomie Harris’ version of the iconic Eve Moneypenny in the latest James Bond film, “No Time To Die,” in the spring of 2020, ahead of seeing her as Helen, a wife and mother who travels to a mysterious island to find out what happened to her husband in HBO’s “The Third Day.”
Instead, the release order was flipped, with “The Third Day” premiering in September (Harris’ first episode was the show’s fourth, airing in October) and “No Time to Die” now delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I love the challenge of finding these weird and wonderful characters because the further away these characters are from me, the more of a challenge it is for me,” Harris tells Variety. “It’s also exciting because that’s when I get to really create something.”
Harris couldn’t completely create Miss Moneypenny from scratch, though, as she had been portrayed on the big screen, by multiple other actors in quite a few previous Bond films since the 1960s. But, she shares, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson sat her down and told her they wanted her version to be “radically different from the past” because “this is a completely new invention.”
“I was completely down for that,” Harris says. “She is so different from the Moneypennys of old and her choices are so different, and we start out seeing her in the field and we understand her journey to come back into the office. That’s never been explored in any of the Bond movies.”
But when it came to Helen in “The Third Day,” the book of the character’s life was full of blank pages.
Helen is an unseen fixture in the first three episodes of Dennis Kelly’s limited series supernatural thriller. Although she texts her husband Sam (Jude Law) to figure out why he has not come home, the first half of the series focuses on Sam’s journey to and on Osea Island. Originally just dropping a young girl off, he ends up staying significantly longer than he originally planned — first because he missed the window when the causeway wasn’t submerged by the high tide, and eventually because he learned the island’s true purpose was to be the controlled center of the universe and chaos on the island would mean chaos in the rest of the world, and he was not only connected to it, genetically, but he was promised to be reunited with the son he thought had been killed if he stayed.
“The supernatural element of it really speaks to the bizarreness of the times we’re living in right now. It mirrors somehow, emotionally [and] spiritually,” Harris says of the show.
The first three episodes of the show fall under the “Summer” banner, with a theatrical event broadcast online-only following. This was “Autumn,” that followed events of a single day in Sam’s time on the island in real-time. The final three episodes that center on Harris’ Helen are “Winter,” and they start with her arrival on Osea Island — with her and Sam’s two other children in tow — to get answers about his now months-long disappearance.
“I think if you cut Helen in half and saw her as a candy or something, at the very center of her, running through every vein in her body, are her children. And everything she does is about them: protecting their future, ensuring that they have a future, so ultimately her secrecy is all related to them and what’s going to serve them best,” Harris says.
That secrecy includes not telling them why they are really on the island in the first place. In order to further tap into Helen’s backstory and motivations, Harris shares that her process is to sit in a quiet room and slip into her character’s skin, imagining there’s an interviewer in front of her, asking her questions about her life. She has to be able to answer all of the questions as her character and “tell a whole story about my life,” she says. “And as I’m doing that, I start to hear and to piece together who this character is.”
This type of deep character work requires Harris have the full arc of her character ahead of time, which is why, she admits, she’s “always been terrified” of doing long-running television. Here, although she admits when she first read the script she did wonder why Helen brought her daughters with her on this fact-finding mission, it ended up having two-fold meaning to her in the end: Without Sam at home, she doesn’t have anyone with whom to leave them (“She just thinks the safest place is to be with her,” she says) and also because “in the back of her mind there’s the hope she’ll meet Sam again and he’ll want to see the girls.”
Harris admits there are elements of Helen’s behavior in the show that are altered because she has her children with her. “I think if she was just doing it on her own she would have been braver and more aggressive about asserting what she wants and going about it,” she explains. “I think she’s a very strong woman and very willful and determined and powerful, and I think you would have seen a lot more of that if she didn’t have her kids with her. She’s trying to tone down her frustration in order to appear more reasonable in their eyes.”
This includes the way she responds when she arrives at the cottage she reserved, only to be told she can’t stay there after all. Helen responds at first with inquiries about whether the denial is because she is Black. As she then has to find a new place to stay, now at the last minute, she meets similar resistance.
“There was more [about race] in the script and it was removed, and I think it was right that it was removed because ultimately it’s not a motivator; it’s not about that,” Harris say. “She’s an outsider, not because her skin’s a different color, but because she is not connected in any way to that island, and everybody who lives in that island or who comes to it has to have a deep connection with it. And if she did, she would be accepted, whatever color she was.
“What happens on that island determines what happens in the rest of the world, so they see themselves as the very epicenter of the world. They take that incredible seriously, so you have to have people on that island who understand that and really take onboard that seriousness,” she continues. “That’s not Helen: She doesn’t give a s— about that; she’s on her own mission.”
Finding out the truth about Sam’s disappearance means Helen will learn he chose to abandon his family. Although the audience already knows this but Helen does not when she first arrives on Osea Island, that does not mean her journey is not already fraught. While she may still love her husband, she has also been hurt — by him and by the traumatic loss of their son.
“Helen is basically apoplectic with rage, and rightly so,” Harris says of what’s to come. “He did abandon them, and not only physically, but financially as well. It was the worst kind of betrayal possible, and I think he deserves that rage.”
“The Third Day” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.